This is something I had published a couple of years ago on a web site called The Week Behind. It seems infinitely more appropriate right now. --DM
I do it myself.
On summer vacations and at Christmas dinners, when the time comes to tell my aging father reassuring stories that demonstrate my writing life in Chicago is happy and successful and fulfilling, I tell stories about Studs Terkel, complete with a college-try impression of his inimitable voice and blasting, staccato delivery.
I tell about the night five years ago, when I first met him. I found myself at a table with several other people at the old Riccardo's restaurant watching Studs drink martinis and listening to him tell stories about the 1919 New York Giants and the 1987 Minnesota Twins and every other baseball team, jazz player, newspaper columnist, politician and plumber-poet in between. Finally he paused, looked me straight in the mesmerized eye and shouted, "I've been talking to you for hours! Who the hell are ya?"
I tell of the Christmas party a month after my daughter was born, when Studs bellowed at the reeling infant, "Welcome to the world!" and we all yelled gleefully into his hearing aids, "Sign the baby, Studs!"
I tell about the "Beware of Dog" sign Studs taped to his front door after his house was burglarized a few years ago. But Studs doesn't have a dog, and the journalist in him chaffed at the lie until he realized it wasn't a lie at all. "I'm the dog!" he roared. "I'm the dog!"
My stories have their intended effect. My dad laughs happily at them. Sometimes he even requests them by asking a question that winkingly goes along with my subtle implication that Studs and I are buddies: "How's your boy Studs?"
And though my Studs stories are economically picked from very occasional meetings, they are true nevertheless. And so is the slightly daffy great-grandfather character they portray: At 94, Studs Terkel is very funny, and as he gradually shrinks into his trademark red-checkered shirts, he is--there is no other word for it--cute.
I'm hardly the only one who thinks so. Everybody thinks Studs is cute these days--and when not cute, amazing, and when not amazing, just about the dearest, sweetest, kindest old fellow we ever met. It may be illegal to refer to Studs on a local newscast without also describing him as "a living treasure."
We celebrate Studs' longevity, fixate on his eccentricities--those shirts--and, most of all, honor him over and over and over (and, in case he dies tomorrow, over again) for what we vaguely call his "contribution."
It is good that we remember Studs Terkel. It is right that we love him. But when you think about it specifically, that "contribution" of his--at least the one part guaranteed to achieve the considerable accomplishment of outlasting Studs--probably amounts to his 1972 book Working.
And in its very composition--more than 100 philosophical interviews with working people not paid to think--Working was a strong, not to say truculent, political statement. Terkel's decision to make it that way was driven not by any of the airy things for which we--for which I--glibly glorify Studs today. Working, and all the other Terkel oral histories made in the same vein, constitute his real contribution: the revealing of ordinary people as extraordinary poets.
And those books were driven by something fierce, something stubborn, something single-minded and something moralistic in Studs Terkel.
We forget those hard somethings in our instinct to make an old man into a universally lovable saint and in our fast-following desperation to be blessed by Saint Studs before he is gone.
"The worst thing that happened to Studs was when Kup died," says longtime Terkel friend and consigliere Tony Judge, referring to the last beloved old man of Chicago letters, Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet, who died three years ago at 91. "Everybody who used to pat Kup on the head now wants to pet old Studs."
On Terkel's behalf, Judge gently turns down awards from conservative groups whose leaders seem wholly unaware that their honoree, were he not philosophically and physically incapable of violence, would as soon burn their headquarters building to the ground and spit on their smoldering cause as accept their Good Citizenship award.
Still, Studs is petted everywhere he goes. On one of the last Nightline shows before Ted Koppel retired, Koppel honored Studs by giving him an anything-goes interview. Koppel's demeanor with Studs was generous, gentle and sweet. In fact, he talked to Studs precisely as one would talk to a much-loved child.
"You're an old lefty, aren't you, Studs?" Koppel said with a kind smile.
I felt at once deeply appreciative of Koppel's tenderness--I love Studs Terkel and have a hard time imagining a world without him; he is a precious treasure--but also troubled by the sound of those words, "old lefty." The way he said them, they might have been replaced with "antique clock," "pottery chard," "dinosaur bone."
Studs answered the question graciously, but I wonder if the lefty was thinking of days when he wasn't old, the days he writes about in his out-of-print 1973 memoir Talking to Myself, the days that made him a lefty in the first place, all those incredibly many years ago.
Louis Terkel was 11 in the summer of 1923. His mother had sent him to a resort in South Haven, Michigan in the belief that the clean air would be good for his asthma. The lonely young man spent much of his time watching the married couple who owned the resort:
"They put in a good twenty-seven-hour day in a vain effort to please their suddenly sybaritic guests: small merchants, salesmen forever scuffling, marginal entrepreneurs, assorted wives, children, and flatulent grandchildren. The country air has a magical effect on these petit-bourgeois. They have become khedives, caliphs, sultanas, princesses. Regally impatient and demanding. Rarely has anyone suffered such bullyragging as the unlucky couple."
The pair were kind to the boy. They also happened to be quiet anarchists. Young Terkel saw how they were treated, and by whom.
An early August morning, 1923. The guests have had a much too hearty breakfast. There is a lounging around and a satiety that is beyond the merely vulgar. An occasional belch. A discreet fart. Somebody makes a joke. Somebody laughs.
"Have you no respect? The President is dead."
Sudden silence. It is not so much the tragic news of Warren Harding's death. We knew that yesterday, moments after it happened. It is the judge who has spoken and when he speaks you'd better listen. He is Mount Pleasant's most prestigious guest. His pockmarked face in no way diminishes the awe with which he is regarded by the others. He is a municipal court judge and a good friend of [Chicago] Mayor William Hale Thompson. He is very patriotic.
How come there is no American flag being flown from the porch? he demands to know. There certainly should be one at half-mast this morning. There was none on the Fourth of July, you say? ... Some people don't know how lucky they are to live in a great country like this. You know who I mean. Heads nod. They turn toward the couple on the grass, some distance away. The judge has been staring in that direction. Balefully.
The couple that runs the resort is resting. The grass is as good a place as any. I saw them but a moment ago flop down into it. They chat softly to one another. ...
The judge announces that at eleven o'clock everybody is to stand at attention and face east. One minute of silence in tribute to our late President, Warren G. Harding. The Judge appears angry about something. I think it has to do with the couple on the grass. The Judge takes out his gold watch. He is counting off the seconds. Eleven o'clock, he announces. The guests are standing up. ...
It is an impressive minute. Except for one thing. The couple on the grass. They are seated. Not so much seated as stretched out. They appear not to notice what's happening. The man lies, belly down; his chin is cupped in his hand, his eyes are closed. The woman, reclining, her open arms pressed downward on the grass, her head tossed back, is gazing up at the sky. They are out of some French impressionist painting. Impression: a bone-weary man and woman, delighting in this precious time out. Rest. The Judge nods.The minute is up. We plop back into our seats and hammocks and swings, having paid our respect to a departed statesman; more to the point, having abided by the Judge's wish. He is nobody to cross.
"Those Goddamn Bolsheviks."
The Judge is glaring in the couple's direction. ...
The story's postscript--the same Judge later went to jail for bribery--leads naturally to another moment, a few years later, that helped cause young Studs to see the world upside down.
His family ran the Wells Grand, a cheap residential hotel where tenants came and went at a rate rapid enough for Studs to get to know lots of people and slow enough for him to get to know them pretty well.
One married tenant was known for the regularity and quietness of his comings and goings until one surprising day when the police arrived and informed the 16-year-old on duty that his tenant was actually on the lamb after robbing a bank in Kansas City. Helpfully, Terkel confirmed the man was in and he offered to escort officers to the proper room.
Outside the door, the boy made a move to knock. But one of the officers shook his head and pointed at the keys, which the boy deftly and soundlessly slipped into the keyhole, allowing the officers to surprise the bank robber who, Terkel remembered half a century later, "is reclining comfortably on the bed. He is in his polka-dot shorts.
"The [newspaper] is spread out about him. The comic section is still in his hands as he is lifted off the bed by one of the men. He is held high, as a baby hoisted by a father. As with a frightened child, Glenn Stauffer's lips pucker, as though he is about to cry. How tiny and helpless he looks. The other man quickly frisks the bed, flipping away the punched-in pillow and turning over the mattress. Betty Stauffer, against the wall, covers her face. . . .
"I shake my head. I feel funny. A hard knot in my stomach. A cramp. My throat hurts. Do I have a fever? I'm in a cold sweat."
Later the young man excoriates himself for betraying his hotelier's code that says a man's home is his castle in his eagerness to please the detectives, who had different aims:
"Because of my righteous behavior, I still see a small man in polka-dot shorts, in the presence of his sweetheart, hoisted high, an absurd and helpless baby. In his home that is his castle. . .
"That was 1928. I was the Good Citizen and I still feel guilty."
Terkel's refusal to be that kind of Good Citizen and his disrespect for similar Good Citizens everywhere contributed to the ping-pong trajectory of his early radio career in the 1930s and 1940s and it cost him his TV career entirely.
He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for, as he tells it, helping raise money for groups like "The Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Beneficiaries: surviving Spaniards, exiles in Southern France and Mexico, who had been foolish enough to resist Franco. The Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Beneficiaries: young Americans stupid enough to volunteer in the fight against Franco; their stupidity compounded by the hard fact that El Caudillo had the help of Mussolini's Blue Division and Hitler's Condor Legion ... [and] The Civil Rights Congress. Beneficiaries: dissenters--damn commies--who were idiotic enough to lack sufficient funds for lawyers and court costs."
So when did the dangerous young lefty become the adorable old lefty? Perhaps during the time he was a middle-aged lefty, around the time he wrote Talking to Myself. He writes of the indignation he felt watching the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces:
Remember that scene, oh God, in which the waitress is the virago? She refuses to serve Jack Nicholson and his companions toast or something."It's not on the menu," the cold bitch says. Talk about a cheap shot. Nicholson, righteous, humiliates the waitress. The audience, our eighteen-to-thirty market, applauds and cheers. The young shits.
What were we told of this nasty woman? Was it afternoon? Was it near the end of a long day for her? And how were her varicose veins? And what happened behind those swinging doors? Did she and the chef have words? And why was she waiting on tables? Was her old man sick? Was her daughter in trouble? And how many Bufferins did she just take? Perhaps she was indeed a Nogood Girlo. We'll never know. We knew more than we needed to about Nicholson; nothing about her. Yet there she was, Medusa. Why didn't I have the guts top stand up in that darkened house and holler, "You fucking young solipsists!"?
Recently in a meeting I'll no doubt make much of next time I'm with my dad, I summoned up the considerable fortitude that it takes to shout a question into Studs' nearly used-up ears. I asked him how it feels to be treated like an elfin doll by today's patriotic Judges, Good Citizens, and fucking young solipsists--this despite the fact that he still speaks at universal healthcare rallies and anti-war protests.
He said he thinks it's funny: "They treat me like I'm Oprah Winfrey!"
Clearly, Studs has learned something about graciousness since 1924, when his seventh-grade teacher, Miss Henrietta Boone, asked her favorite pupil which of the two party candidates he hoped would win the presidential election. "Are you for Calvin Coolidge or John W. Davis?" Sadly, he was neither for the Democrat nor the Republican, but rather for the Progressive Party candidate, Robert La Follette:
"Innocently--or was I damnably perverse even then?--I piped, 'Fightin' Bob La Follette.' She was startled, poor dear. Why have I always upset such gentle hearts? Why couldn't I have been my cute little button self and said the right thing: 'Keep Cool with Coolidge.' It didn't take much to make her day. I failed her."
If we are to retain a memory of Studs that will actually stand in for him when he is gone, we must acknowledge between our loving tributes that Saint Studs has similarly failed us all.